Our household watches a lot of Food Network, partly because we like the programming and partly because it’s the channel we always leave on for the dogs when we go out (Bubba in particular seems to enjoy that Alton Brown). One of the shows we catch on occasion is Restaurant Makeover. The basic premise finds an established chef and a professional designer teaming up to rescue some washed out restaurant of the month. Inevitably, this involves recreating the menu, changing the look of the place, and schooling the endearingly naïve owner. But the best part of the show is the preliminary walkthrough in which we are treated to some of the ghastliest yet truly hilarious design and decor choices imaginable. There are times when I’ll shake my head and think “What the hell were they thinking?”
That’s pretty much how I felt when we walked into Tapastree for the first time. If there was ever a Vancouver eatery in need of a Restaurant Makeover, it’s this one. The half-filled book shelves lining the back wall beside the open kitchen are a bit of an odd choice, as is the collection of lurid red and orange paintings, but it was the wall-mounted severed Arts & Crafts arms clutching the distorted candelabras that had me wondering whether the owner was a fan of those old Hammer Films. Had a hunchbacked Igor shambled up to take our order, I wouldn’t have batted an eyelash.
As it turned out, no Igor on this night. Instead, our waitress was the pleasantly upbeat Erika who advised us on portions (Six dishes between the two of us was more than enough, she claimed. And she was right) and recommended a couple of feature items. We ordered both features, starting with the Jerusalem artichoke soup. The first time I had this soup was at Villa del Lupo. It was such a revelatory experience that I went back the following week and had it again, then went back the following month – only to discover it was no longer on the menu. Tapastree’s version was just as good, the pureed sunchoke’s creamy, slightly sweet flavor complimented by panfried hedgehog mushrooms and white truffle oil. Very rich and filling. The night’s other feature item, the duck confit in buckwheat crepe didn’t fare as well. The crepe didn’t really add much to the dish which was otherwise good, the shard of duck bone that managed to find its way past the deboning process notwithstanding. Next up was the not at-all-spicy spicy tuna tartare, its all too subtle flavor completely overpowered by sesame oil and the bitterness of the over-toasted crostini upon which it had been served. But when the sablefish arrived, all was forgiven. Marinated in a miso vinaigrette, the delicate fish was both tasty and tender. We also had the macaroni and cheese with baked bread crumbs which Fondy greatly enjoyed although I found the consistency of the cheese a little weak. By the time our last dish arrived, we were nearing our limit. Nevertheless, in the interest of being thorough, we sampled the buttermilk fried chicken with roasted garlic aioli. Wow. The cumin and parsley-dusted chicken didn’t even need the aioli. It was that good.
For dessert, we both had that night’s addition to the dessert menu: an excellent sticky toffee pudding with vanilla ice cream. I also ordered three scoops of the homemade ice cream “for the table” – peanut butter walnut, chocolate-espresso, and vanilla – all very good.
Partway through our meal, a group of ten settled in beside us to celebrate a birthday party. They were triple-teamed by servers who lavished them with the warmth and attention usually reserved for regulars, royalty, or notorious underworld figures. Despite this, our table service didn’t miss a beat.
Overall, a positive dining experience. More hits than misses with some definite stand-out menu items: the soup, the chicken, and the sticky toffee pudding come to mind. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Tapastree as a nice play for a casual evening out, a birthday party, or a prelude to horror movie marathon.